Optimism is NOT Arrogance

Arrogance is the belief that you are BETTER than others. Optimism is the belief that you have the same CHANCE as others. We all have the chance to achieve our dreams. Don't ever let anyone tell you differently.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

E-Picture Books - The Future?

Happy Pre-emptive New Year everyone!

Yes, the holidays are nearly over, and hopefully everyone got what they wanted for Christmas (or Kevmas as we say in my house - no disrespect to Jesus at all...)

It was a joyous occasion for me - and that was a horrific cliche, wasn't it?  Anyway, got many new books which I have no time to read but will start not reading them immediately!  Actually I lied - I did start one - EARTH by Jon Stewart and the writers at The Daily Show.  If you want to chuckle - A LOT - pick this book up.  It's hysterical.

Also got a couple of reference books for the next book in The Timepiece Chronicles about the Civil War, so that should come in handy.

But I wanted to talk about a book my son got (ok, I bought it for me on his brand new iPad).  It's "The Monster at the End of this Book", the old Grover stand by written by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smolin.

This was one of my favorites growing up, and I read it to my kids and it became my son's favorite.  But the real reason I mention it is because it's not a book for the iPad like on Kindle.  It's an app - an interactive picture book for kids.

And I think this is the future.

No, I don't think the written page is dead or going away, but as touchpads like the iPad continue to increase in popularity, I could easily see my grandkids toting them around for textbooks, novels, and non-fiction reference books all in one device.  And that'd be awesome, because my kids carry about 15-20 pounds of books in a backpack every day at school.

But back to picture books.  First of all, for all you illustrators out there, breathe deep - computer graphics won't overtake the hand-drawn picture, in my mind.  Yes, computer animation is the norm now, but in art houses all over the world, hand-drawn animation rules.  So I think it will be with animated picture books.  You may use a computer stylus and pad to draw, but draw you will, and children will still love it.

Secondly, for you writers - picture books will ALWAYS need to be written.  The medium may change, but if anything, the lower cost of producing picture book apps will mean more opportunities as publishers expand from printing houses to app developers.  Writers will ALWAYS be needed.  Trust me on that.

We are all story tellers.  We've evolved from the campfire to the proscenium to the written page to the computer.  But stories have never, EVER dramatically changed.  Nor do I think they ever will.

So if you get a chance, check out the Monster app.  I love it as much as I love the book.  It's interactive, I can hear Grover's voice, and I'm engaged.

Next I'll present the flip side - the downside to all this?  The atrophy of imagination...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Greatest Christmas Story

Well ok, it may not be the GREATEST Christmas story, but it is kinda cute...

My mom was having Christmas dinner when the REAL labor pains hit.  Being her fourth, this time around there was no sudden panic or rushing to the hospital at the first sign of labor.  She went to her mother-in-laws house, helped set the table, waddled around to her seat, and enjoyed a wonderful, albeit periodically painful, Christmas dinner.  

At seven o'clock on the 25th of December, the pains got worse, and she knew it was time to go to the hospital.  Calmly packing up the presents, leaving three other kids at the in-laws to spend the night, she and her husband drove the ten miles across Detroit to have another baby.  

After they arrived, this being 1967, they took my mother to the back while my dad stayed in the lobby with the other fathers.  Not much pacing, as this was becoming routine, my dad just sat with the other guys and talked football.

An hour and a half later, the doors to the waiting room burst open, and a nurse announced to my father that my mother had a son.  The second boy after a girl, then boy then another girl.  

Soon he was able to stop by and say hi to his newest addition, and for reasons never fully divulged to me other than the fact that there had never been one before, they decided to name me Kevin.

Yes, a birthday on Christmas is special and it sucks.  It's cool to be born on such a universally meaningful day, and yes the lights and carols are especially appreciated.  I wasn't born in a manger, and I didn't have livestock attending my birth.  I don't even remember my size, 'cause at the time I couldn't quite write it down.  But still, whenever someone asks "why don't you celebrate your birthday in June or something" I always say "Because I wasn't born in June."  It's my birthday, I'll stick with it.

It does suck because the presents were always combined, so I'd get a larger present but fewer of them.  And it sucks never having a birthday party at school, or trying to have a party even NEAR your birthday because everyone's all hyped up about getting presents for others.  But the worst part?  The absolutely, unquestionably, without a doubt worst part of being born on December 25?

December 26. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Express yourself!

Here's a healthy tip for anyone feeling really frustrated with life, their current situation, anything.


Sounds simple, I know, but not everyone does it.  "I can't write!" or "I'm no good at writing" come up a lot.  But here's the thing: writing can get out of you everything that's festering and making you insane.

And it doesn't have to be a "Dear Diary" thing, either.  I once wrote a hundred page script in one night after I got in an argument with my wife.  I took it all out on some poor bastard who was captured by blood drinkers (not vampires - this was way before vampires were cool).  It was a great script, one I'm very proud of, and it poured out the anger I was feeling.

In fiction, screenplays, whatever, you can take out all the aggression and anger you feel and its perfectly legal.  Hell, if you're Stephen King it even pays well.  But it doesn't have to make sense, be published, or even read by anyone.  It's just for you.  And when it's fiction, boy, you can make anything happen.  had a rough day at work with indecisive bosses who blame you for the delays they caused?  Write about a brilliant CEO (modeled after you, of course), who turns around a failing company by finding secrets about all the evil doers in the company (modeled after your boss, of course).  And throw in some mafia coming after the hero or something, and BOOM, you've got a story and a healthy little fantasy that alleviates your stress.

It's great.  It works, and it's a lot cheaper than a gym monthly fee, and better for you than peppermint stick ice cream...which I love...

Try it out and let me know how it goes.

Write on!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

In the meantime...

Whilst I wait for Caitlin to review the latest manuscript, and thus (hopefully) sending it off to the publishers for the massive bidding war (it is OPTIMISM abounds, right?) I thought I'd just wax philosophic here before I start the second book.

Topic:  Equality

Given that today Congress has repealed the Don't Ask Don't Tell law, I thought this an appropriate topic.  And a great day it is for equality.  We seem to be in the midst of a civil rights movement not unlike the sixties, when so much progress was made for our African American brothers and sisters.  Now we just have to make the same progress with those of different sexual persuasion.

But really, this is a blow to those who sought to oppress others whose views and lifestyles didn't match theirs - those whose lifestyles they didn't and could never understand.

Look, I'm married with three kids.  I could never in my life imagine myself kissing another fuzzy faced bristly guy on the lips.  Just ain't gonna happen.  But that's me.  And ya know what?  There are six billion other people on the planet who are all different from me.  If some of them are physically attracted to members of the same sex, I have no business even caring.  Personally, I look at the underlying benefit of such a relationship:  love.  And that, my friends, is something the world could DEFINITELY use a lot more of.

Now I understand some concerns from folks about sharing the shower stalls and sleeping quarters with men or women who might be attracted to you.  It's an uncomfortable feeling; ask any woman who's been oogled by men.  BUT, they have sexual harassment laws for that, and they apply regardless of the sexual preferences of the perpetrator.  The rare instances of that happening haven't prevented us from enlisting women, nor should it prevent us from allowing homosexuals to enlist.

The bottom line is this:  we are all equal because the one consistent aspect to every single human being is that we're all different.  Our unique characteristics define us as humans, and thus no one person more or less deserving of our honor and respect than another.  If a thousand men act a certain way, you can't say for sure the 1,001 man will act the same way.  So it is true with every person you meet.   Their characteristics, their mannerisms, their beliefs and their core spirit is not evident upon the first glance.  People can and will surprise you, if given the opportunity to do so.

We now have the ability to have gay men and women serve in the military proudly and without discrimination.  They bring a wealth of knowledge, skills and pride to the American military.  This is a great day for the advancement of the human race.  A great day for us all.

Write on!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review Time! "Shutter Island" By Dennis Lehane

Great book.  Go read it.

That was easy!

Ok, seriously, if you saw the movie but didn't read the book, this is still a great work of thrilling fiction.  The story centers around a federal marshall trying to investigate the disappearance of a "patient" at an insane asylum.  A home for the very very violent.  He's also trying to learn more about his past, and come to grips with the person that killed his wife.

It's quick, with well-rounded characters and a writing style that can throw you off at times, just like being in an insane asylum would.  One stylistic choice Lehane makes often is the use of a run-on sentence, something your teachers told you never to do.

In some paragraphs he can have a sentence of thirty, forty words all connected by the word "and".  Why?  Because that's his style for demonstrating high action - things moving around and characters making decisions and objects falling while people are running at them and throwing things and then the character slips on the rocks and falls, etc. etc.  It's a useful tool, and one that comes across well when used sparingly. By bringing it out during those intense sense, Lehane wraps you in the frenetic movement of the scene, and you become as engrossed in the action as any other book I've read.

It's also a great example of foreshadowing, but not in obvious ways.  The attitude of the staff while the main character is investigating a disappearance portends to a wild ending, but you would never even think that until you get to the ending.  You know, some books drop hints that smack you in the face and you think, "Well obviously they're going to hook up in the end" or something.  You feel you've figured it out way too early.  Here, like the great mystery writers of old, Lehane doesn't give you a friggin' clue about the disappearance of the patient, and in fact detracts you from the main cause so well that you almost forget someone's disappeared.  Only when it all comes together do you have that "wow" moment.

If you've seen the movie you know what I mean, but still, I recommend you reading it.  Knowing the ending won't tarnish the read, it'll just make you more aware of how brilliantly Lehane hides that ending.  If you haven't seen or read the book, go to it!  Either one was enjoyable, but as usual, the book is better than the movie.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A guy walks into a bar...he says "ouch". What's funny?

Two guys are at a bar, and the one guy turns to the other and says "I slept with your mother!"  No reaction.  He turns again and says "I SLEPT WITH YOUR MOTHER!"  Second guy says "Go home Dad, you're drunk."

How do you write comedy?  How do you make people laugh?  And more importantly, sustain that throughout an entire novel?


....no friggin' clue...

In fact, the more I think about it, the less I am inclined to believe anyone can tell someone how to be funny.  You just can't learn it.  Imagine a class, the teacher stands up and says, "ok.  Be funny.  Ready?  Go!"

I think it's a natural state of being.  An outcrop of being happy.  Of recognizing ridiculous situations or statements and making them seem perfectly normal.  Of making the absurd a part of the norm.

I love Monty Python.  No really, I do!  And I find them to be hysterical because they can do the most absurd, out-of-the-blue things with a straight face.  As if it's just the way it is.  I think stories can be hysterical that way too.

Read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".  My personal favorite.  Adams throws in so many subtle absurdities that you almost have to re-read the sentence to make sure you just read what you think you read.

But I do believe this:  funny can't be forced.  Even stand-up comics, as rehearsed and prepared as they are, find their humor in the everyday.  They're constantly writing down jokes based on things they've seen, or heard.  If you write a character that tries to be funny, they'll come across as that annoying guy who makes loud jokes and then laughs just as loudly at them, looking around to see who else is laughing.  A funny character isn't obnoxious, or if they are, that's what makes them funny.

At least in my opinion.

But really, who does know?  Like Bruno Kirby said in "Good Morning Vietnam":

"I know funny."  Which is funny, because clearly his character didn't.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Book is Going Out soon!!!

Woot Woot Woot!  Just heard from Caitlin that she definitely wants to get the book out to the publishers in January.  Here's her exact words:

"Yes, I definitely want it to go out in January.  Nobody submits this month--the holidays are too distracting and most houses close between Christmas and New Years."

So take that to heart, fellow writers.  If you're submitting to publishers, avoid December - it's a dead month in the publishing world.

Meantime, I'll wait for Caitlin's notes (probably) and push to get this done quick so we can start hitting the streets!  As my wife said, "Look out 2011!  Here we come!"

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Writing Environment...

The new manuscript is away!  Let's hope Caitlin approves it for shopping around...can't wait!

Sorry for not writing more frequently, but when you're in revision mode, it's either all or nothing - when you sink yourself into it, you have to go all out...

So anyway, today's topic - the writing environment.  In this I'm focusing on a question someone posed to me:  do you write with music?


I love writing to good music.  I'm a bit of a movie fan (if you haven't guessed), and writing fiction to music makes the movie come alive in my head.  It's gotta fit, of course, but when it does, hoo boy, I can do 5-10,000 words in one sitting!  And when it's REALLY good, I look up and an hour or two has magically passed without me ever knowing it.

Here are some of my favorite songs to write to:

Iona - The Book of Kells - Matthew-The Man.  11 minutes of dynamic, theme-changing music.  Awesome.
Harry Gregson-Williams - The Chronicles of Narnia - The Battle.  Awesome for any fight scene.  Same with the next two:
Hans Zimmer - Gladiator - The Battle
Trevor Jones - Excalibur Soundtrack - Carmin Burana
Disney's Reflections of Earth from their Tapestry of Dreams CD.  Very regal and intense
Anything from V for Vendetta (except for the two vocal songs)
Symphony #1 in C Minor by Brahms.
Dvorak's 9th - New World Symphony.  Two classics for intensity and drama.
James Horner - Glory Soundtrack - Charging Fort Wagner.  Hopelessness, heart, desire, facing death.
The Braveheart Soundtrack.  Terrific melody for sadness, but also some great battle music.

Give these a listen and you'll see what I mean.  Forget the movies, (even better if you've never seen them), but just picture your story in the background.  If it fits.

Sometimes these orchestral pieces won't fit.  If I'm writing YA, I'll listen to whatever kids are listening to today.  Not to be hip, but because most of what's written today is the soundtrack to these teens lives.  You can engross yourself in their world that way.

Anyway, the work environment is totally personal, so take my advice only if it fits.  Just thought I'd throw out some examples.

Write on!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Got a secret? Dropping hints on your reader...

Well, it's about time we all got back to work, right?  Thanksgiving break is over, gotta get that manuscript ready.  I've gotten the last of the reviews from Caitlin, so now I'm going over the manuscript one more time with a fine tooth comb before I send it back.  I like to read a chapter, make any adjustments, and then re-read it with Caitlin's notes just to make sure I've covered everything she's pointed out.  Nothing will tick off an agent more than if you ignore their marks.

But this blog is about secrets.  I'm reading Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, and I gotta tell ya, it's some amazing writing.  Not only does he have the basics WELL covered (dialogue, character, plot movement, etc. etc.), but after seeing the movie FIRST, and knowing how it ends, I'm reading the book knowing his secret, and boy, does he do a great job dropping hints.

Now I won't go into too much detail about this book other than to say READ IT, but I wanted to touch on how to drop hints, especially if you have a major twist in the end you're going to drop on the reader.

Lehane does this expertly.  His hints, and I think this is absolutely necessary if you're going to shift gears at the end, are subtle, but once the ending is known, are CLEARLY relevant.  In other words, they're so well placed that by the time the twist happens, you subconsciously knew it was going to happen, and thus leap up saying WOW!

How do you do that?  Well, Lehane uses the actions of the characters, the SECONDARY characters, to convey subtle hints.  Let's say your main character is a woman, but really a man.  Simple, if not overused twist.  Like the movie Tootsie, only coming into it without knowing the first part.  How can you subtly drop hints about that?  You know the secret, and you want to tease your reader with it.

1)  AVOID the obvious.  If your hero loves dolls, boom.  The reader will get it right away.  And if it's too obvious they'll drop the book - they've already figured it out.  If it's subtle and they THINK they've figured it out, they'll continue reading to see if they were right.  But the best, is when the hints are so subtle they don't even think there's anything TO figure out.  So, in this instance - how do you avoid gender related hints in our example?  You could make remarks that the hero has to put on her own makeup, and casually talk about her fear of someone else touching her face.  You could talk about the amount of time it takes her to get dressed in the morning.  Or her deeply rooted need for privacy.  These are character traits of any person, but when you realize she's a man, you realize WHY she doesn't like anyone touching her face, and why it takes her so long to get ready.

2)  DO write with your secret in mind.  If you throw it out there with NO hints, your reader will feel cheated and will hate you for pulling that outta your butt.  "WHAT?  That makes no sense!" is something you never want to hear.  Make sure you're consistent throughout.  If she doesn't like having anyone touch her face, don't have her stopping in a mall to get a quick facial.

3)  DON'T lie to support your secret.  Again, if you make it too fake your reader will feel cheated.  Don't have your heroine make out with a man just to convince the reader she's a woman, when the REAL man is a tough as nails womanizer.  That wouldn't make sense.  Just like #2.

These are just my ideas, and I'm sure there are more, but you get the gist of it.  If you can keep a secret until the end of the book, make sure it's a good one, and drop little hints or clues that at the time seem innocuous, but will pack a wallop in the end.

Ok, off to bed with me!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Story Review - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

*yawn*...right?  I mean, who the heck ISN'T talking about the latest installment in the series.  So I gotta come up with a new angle.  It's a great movie, great book series, yadda yadda yadda.  There's not a whole lot else to say.

So I'll focus on...location.

Story Setting.

In the Harry Potter series, of which I am a great fan, J.K. Rowling has probably created one of the most intricate and comprehensive worlds since the Star Wars saga.  Star Trek, Middle Earth, these are stories that fit into a world so detailed and well-thought out that if the writers were going to a shrink, they'd be the most complex delusional cases ever.

The writers could describe every aspect of those worlds.  Down to the names of the little creatures that crawl into one's ears like the ones on Seti-Alpha-Six (see Wrath of Khan.  And then tell me what those things are called - I don't feel like looking it up).

J.K. has done the same.  She didn't just make up a world, she transported herself into it.  She probably had dreams of the Hogwarts world, and could, from memory, tell you how many left turns you had to make to get from Professor Snape's class back to Gryffindor.

And that's PRECISELY why the series was such a huge hit.  Not the only reason, for sure, but a big part of it.  Because, as I learned after watching this movie, it all fits.  And readers or audiences HATE it when a story doesn't fit.  When the rules of the world they're investing themselves into are violated.

It's the most critical point of fantasy / science-fiction writing.  If you violate one rule you'll lose the reader.  They'll know.  They're not stupid.

In my book, which deals with time travel, Caitlin and I have worked hard to make sure the rules of time travel are not only known and understood, but are consistent throughout.  How often can they travel back in time?  Why doesn't one trip totally disrupt the time/space continuum?  Why does one watch take them wherever they want to go but the other doesn't?  These are questions that a good agent will ask, because he or she will be reading your book as a regular reader would.  Even if they've read it before, they will look at it each time with new perspective and perhaps even ask new questions.  And your answers better be consistent with your world.

You can't fake fantasy.  One slip and the reader will know you're dodging.  One sudden appearance of something that couldn't possibly have been there before and they'll feel cheated - like you're making it up as you go.

CAUTION:  Not all of these details have to be spelled out immediately or even explained.  YOU have to know them.  You can reveal them as you wish, but don't bog your reader down with the details.  Just have them ready.

That way, when your reader enters your world, as we have all entered the world of Harry Potter, even if it's never been seen before, it will all make sense...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Real Characters - Film Review for "The Kids Are All Right"

I don't know about you, but when I see one little thing a character does that seems unreal, I lose it.  It takes me completely out of the story.

Now I know I do a lot of film reviews, and I should be doing book reviews and blah blah blah.  But films are writing - they're books in visual form, complete with stories, plot lines, and yes, characters.

And just like in books, if I see a character in a film act in an out-of-left-field kind of way, I get thrown out of the story completely.

But in "The Kids Are All Right", written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, the characters are so real they're almost scary.  I mean, apart from the fact that they're lesbians, and they only had two kids instead of three, their trials and challenges with marriage were so close to home it actually hurt to watch.  

Now granted, the big difference between film and written stories are the actors that bring them out, but I believe that just reading this script I would've fallen in love with the story.  But Annette Bening and Julianne Moore do such a fantastic job bringing their characters to life that I lost myself completely in their story.

So what made their characters so real?  The fact that they cried (a lot)?  No.  Here's what I liked about their characters, and it's something I'd say to keep in mind when you write yours:  they're not perfect.  Not even slightly perfect.  They're not flawed to the point of being idiots, but they are definitely, positively, 100% human.  However - and this is important - their RELATIONSHIP is perfect.  And I say that because it requires work, but it lasts.  It's there, beneath everything they do - even when they argue.  You can feel it, because their feelings, positive or negative, or so fierce and strong.  It makes their emotions that much more real.

So when writing your characters, give them tears.  Let them cuss.  Free them from the bonds of your perceived "perfection".  Even if you're writing Superman, you have to have the perfect man have a human side.  That's why Spock was such a loved character.

While we don't want to see complete reflections of us in the books we read, we do want to see some aspect of us.  Because ultimately the hero of the story triumphs.  Love conquers, or they conquer their fear, or the recognize their mistakes and move on.  And when we can associate ourselves with those characters, when they seem like regular people doing those things, it gives us hope that we can do them as well.  We can forgive.  We can love.  We can move on.

Breathe that into your characters, and I guarantee you'll catch the agent's eye.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Is an agent worth it?

I've posted a couple of things about the joys of having an agent, but I'm not sure if I've talked about the one thing that means the most to me when it comes to having an agent.  Why I'm more than happy to work with her and feel honored to have her input.

Having an agent legitimizes me as an author.

Now I know a lot of people may roll their eyes at that and say "c'mon, you're an author the minute you write something", and that's true.  But to me, my biggest hurdle I had to get over after all those screenplays, all those short stories, was that no one was taking me seriously.  In my mind, I was still a hack typing away at a computer with no idea how to make a novel work.

And I may be alone in those thoughts.  Perhaps my self-esteem was low because I was raised to not think of writing as a "real job" and was always hard on myself when it came to my own words.  I'd read about other writers making it big and think "That'll never happen to me".

My dad has self published seven or eight books.  And he's thrilled and very happy to have a hundred or so copies ordered from Amazon.  He's the definition of writing for himself.  Retired, age 70, with an imagination and experience to last the rest of his days.

Me?  I always had to have something more.  Someone I didn't know from a hole in the wall saying "hey, this is pretty good".  My wife loves my writing and would tell me so, to which I'd respond "yeah, but you're not in the business, are you?"

Now I have someone who is.  Someone who's job it is to get authors published.  She makes money off of the sale of my book, and she thought highly enough of it to take it under her wing and help grow it.  And she has - she's pointed out inconsistencies, word choices, and alternate endings to make it a much more sellable product.  And I'm grateful.

But most of all, I'm grateful that someone has invested themselves in my writing.  That makes it all worth it, and I appreciate that more than anything on a daily basis.

So you could self-publish, or go right to editors, or just stick the manuscript in the drawer.  But I wouldn't change a thing for me with getting an agent.  I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

Monday, November 15, 2010

And it's off! Part I

Sent out the changes to my agent for the chapters that had the most differences.  There were only 4, the rest was minor word changes and questions she had that I probably needed to answer.  I emailed her the chapters for her to review so that I can make sure I'm on the right track before printing the whole blasted thing out again.

When revising, I highly recommend printing out the entire manuscript when all your changes are done, and then reading the book as if it were a book, not yours, but someone else's.  This will allow you to think somewhat objectively and things that are awkward will stick out like a third grader's treatise on the sociological impact of newer social media outlets.  It just won't make sense.

I also check for spelling and stuff, but that sticks out with me on any document I read.  Grammar tends to get lost with me though, because I write in a certain voice that I hear in my head (see, I told you those voices in your head will come in handy) and so what I'm reading sounds perfectly normal to me, even conversational.  BUT, that's where the objectivity breaks down - someone else will hear a different voice.  So I have to go slow there...

Finally, when you get an agent (and you WILL get an agent!) pay attention to their little pet peeves.  The more you nail those and avoid them after they tell you what they are, the more professional you'll seem to them.  That's really important, because they are in the business of making money off of you.  They need to feel confident that you'll take their recommendations seriously.

So - now I wait again for Caitlin to review the changes, then I'll print the whole thing out and re-read just to make sure I didn't change something in Chapter 2 that'll come up again as something different in chapter 5.  Continuity is key.

Then she'll love it, send it out to the five or so publishers she has in her back pocket, and BOOM!  My Christmas/Birthday present (the days are one and the same, sadly) will be a HUGE bidding war amongst all five publishers!

OPTIMISM!  It's what's for breakfast!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Using the Weather - It can help! (SPOILER ALERT!)

The ending, according to my agent, needs to change.  The bad guy faces off with the good guy, and the good guy gets away to a new time (it's time travel), but my agent wanted me to leave the ending open but not TOO open.

Ok, that probably doesn't make a whole lotta sense.  Here's the thing.  When writing a series, or what you hope will be a series, the advice I got from my agent is make it open ended enough that it could seem like a series, but not so reliant upon a sequel type ending to make it HAVE to be a series.  Often time publishers will only option one book, see how it sells, and if it tanks, leave it alone.  If it does great, terrific, they'll publish a series.  But remember, once the ending of the first book is published, it's out there.  You can't change it.

So, in my original ending, the hero goes back in time leaving the bad guy obviously alive and in 1862.  Perfect set up for the sequel.  But now we needed to have it be ambiguous as to whether or not he lives.  That way, if the book doesn't sell, we didn't leave a lot of people hanging, and if it does, we can write the next one saying "AH HA!  You thought he was dead!" without really cheating people.

SO!  Round two - I had the good guy and bad guy square off, and there's a FARMER!  He points his gun at the bad guy, tells him to leave the kid alone, and just as the bad guy leaps towards the hero, the farmer shoots.  The good guy disappears just after hearing the gun-shot, and we assume the bad guy's dead, BUT, nobody knows for sure.

To which my agent replied (roughly) "Farmer?  Where the heck did HE come from?"

Too coincidental.

So - back to the drawing board.  How do I make the bad guy seem to die, but not tell for sure, while the good guy gets away, but NOT have it seem like I'm writing it this way 'cause my agent told me to.


They arrive in the 1862, square off against each other, in the MIDDLE OF A HURRICANE!  High winds!  Rain!  Massive Lightning!

And because the watch that teleports the user through time uses electricity, it only makes sense that the lightning would be even more intense around the hero.  So!  They argue, they square off, the boy sets the watch, and lightning splits the massive oak they're fighting under, knocking a big, massive branch towards them, and just before it lands - POOF, the hero disappears.  The bad guy lives?  Dies?  Who knows.

But the key here is that arriving in the midst of a torrential downpour is a LOT more plausible than having Joe RandomFarmer just happen to be nearby.  I mean, it does rain in Chadds' Ford, PA, right?  Especially in September?

So I'm gonna try that.  If anyone has any suggestions or comments, I'm more than open to them!  Otherwise, we'll throw this donut against the wall and see if it sticks...


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sub(versive) Plots

This is a great big mess, one that I'm challenged with as I write the first of a potentially long series:  how the heck do I keep tabs on all the subplots?

I mean, I don't wanna go crazy like some books, where the reader has to keep track of fourteen "main" characters having fourteen different lives, but subplots are a great way to expand a novel and keep interest in the main plot from waning.

In my book, there are several subplots brewing, one for each of the other families that know about the secret to time travel.  Each of them have some form of interaction with the protagonist, as well as within themselves, but they're all in the background, obviously, to the main plot:  trying to destroy the time traveling watch and prevent anyone from ever knowing how to time travel again.  But I feel like I've created a massive web and I have to know the details of each strand!  Where did the families start, where did they come from, who knows who, how does family A feel about family B, etc.  It's a little like the diverse characters supporting Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.  Voldemort is obviously the bad guy, but he's got a ton of henchmen who each have backstories, characters, arcs, etc. etc.

Man.  That's a lot.

So what am I gonna do?  Well, for one, I'm gonna try the freeware that Stacy recommended on an earlier post.

Next, if that doesn't work, I'll try outlining the J.K. Rowling way, but boy that was a challenge.  I hate outlining and prefer just to write, but I can't really get away with that with the complicated subplots.

Lastly, if nothing else works, I'll devise something of my own on my big board.  That's the corkboard over my desk with a ton of notecards on it.  It's messy and manual, but I'm a visual guy, so it helps me see the plot lines.

Any other suggestions or tips?

Friday, November 5, 2010

I have a confession...and a book review...to make

I scraped the metal folding chair along the linoleum floor to plop myself down in the circle.  Fifteen eyes (The homeless Santa character across the circle had a glass eye) watched me as I straightened myself up and let out a sigh.  This was gonna be tough.

"Kevin," the moderator said with a hideous, bogus smile.  "Would you like to begin?"

I closed my eyes.  I can't do this!  I thought.  Run!  A voice echoed in the room:  "Please?"

I had to do it.  Without opening my eyes, I stood up.  I couldn't bear to see them laugh, like everyone else.  But I had to get it out.  I had to come to terms with it.

"Hi," I started.  I opened one eye just enough to see their blurry outlines.  No one spoke.  "My name is Kevin," I said.  Still nothing.  I closed my eyes tighter.

I inhaled.  I winced as if someone had a grip on a nasty splinter in my finger and was about to pull.

"...and I'm the victim..."

Another squinty-eyed peek.  Still nothing...

"...of a garden gnome attack..."

Dead silence.  I let out a breath.  And then?

Applause.  The group applauded!  After eighteen months of showing up and saying nothing, I'd done it! I'd admitted and expressed my horrible nightmare.  I felt the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders.

I sat back down, felt the congratulatory claps on my back, and heard the various words of encouragement like "I hear ya, man," or "we're here for ya brother."

Yes.  I was the victim of a horrible garden gnome attack.  I can speak about it now because of my Survivors of Garden Gnome Attacks group (SOGGA).  I can hold my head up high and say with a clear conscious that there is no shame in being brutally beaten by five, grinning clay and porcelain half-pint hellions.  In fact, my survival has become a source of pride.

And I owe it all to one book:  "How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack: Defend Yourself When the Lawn Warriors Strike (And They Will)" by Chuck Sambuchino.

I read this book not too long ago and found it informative, educational, and funny - yes, it has allowed me to laugh at my own experiences in bush-hidden brutality.  While I still have trouble viewing the horrific pictures (Thank God Chuck was able to get the film from the poor, presumably dead photographer), and I still wake in the middle of the night with the feel of their cold, hard beards on my shins, and the feel of their razor sharp rakes across my back, I know that thanks to Chuck's book, others may not have to suffer the same fate as me.

So please, do yourself a favor.  Get this book.  Protect yourself.  Or else you may find yourself attending a SOGGA meeting yourself...

...if you're lucky...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

So...The Bad Guy

Again...now see, for those who have been following me, you may have heard me talk about the antagonist and how to balance making him too evil versus making him somewhat relatable.  It seems that's a little different for middle grade books, which is the genre I'm writing for.

In my book, the bad guy, towards the end, wants the children following him dead.  Just flat out, dead.  He's even willing to shoot one (and does, in the leg) to get what he wants.

Too violent, my agent says.

And she's probably right - and here's why.  When your antagonist is an alien, a monster, a wizard or any other kind of fantastic creature, they can be as bad as you need them to be.  Why?  Because they're NOT REAL.

My bad guy is a human guy.  A regular guy.  A professor.  So if he's really really bad, that could be TOO realistic and scary.  See, the fantasy realm, especially for middle grade and YA, allows the bad guys to have no morals, to be truly evil, because they're not real people.  But to have a real person display those characteristics to modern day eleven year-old boys, well, that's just a little close to home.

So, instead of wanting them to die, and shooting the one in the leg, my agent suggested the shot be accidental (which is fine because I make that into a suspenseful but still funny scene) and later on to leave them tied to a tree so that they'll be arrested as spies, rather than killed in the war.

Subtle differences, neither of which I think diminishes the bad guy's bad-guyness, but not so harsh as to make teachers and parents gasp when they read it to their class or their kids so them what they're reading.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the subplot changes...that's gonna be tricky...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The editorial comments from my agent are here! The editorial comments from my agent are here!

Apologies to Steve Martin in The Jerk.  But hey, I'm excited!  Ok, they weren't as huge as "SONY BOUGHT THE MOVIE RIGHTS" but they weren't as bad as "I've decided to use your manuscript as birdcage liner.  Hope you don't mind".

So, here's what Caitlin had to say:

First of all - she starts out very sweet and optimistic - I won't quote her word for word because that wouldn't be fair to her - she wrote the email assuming it'd be private, and that I wouldn't share all the horrible things she said about me to with the world.

Anyway, she started out like any good critiquer (is that a word?) should:  positive.  Here's what works.  You've worked hard, kept the original characters voices true, great story and so on.

Then they hit you with the BUT.

Three things need to be fixed:  the antagonist, who seems a little harsh for middle grade fiction, the subplot regarding another family from the 18th century, and the ending.  None of which are major show stoppers, but I do want to speak to her about the antagonist.  I mean, he's been a really mean jerk since the beginning, so I'm not sure why now all of a sudden he's TOO rough.

I'll let you know what I find out.

The subplot I'm not worried about.  I added that on the last pass through, so I expected some changes.  The ending is a tweak, nothing major, just something to make it more suspenseful and ambiguous (does he die or doesn't he).

Overall, I'm thrilled to hear that she's ok, although she didn't offer any explanations as to why it took so long to get back to me (I suspect there may be another writer in her life.  I'll have to have her tailed to find out for sure).

But most importantly - it means I've got work to do!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Silence is annoying...but to be expected...

Well, according to Chuck, agent communication can be a feast or famine kinda thing.  I guess it makes sense - as they get more involved with other projects I guess they tune everyone else out.


Ya know, someday I'm gonna have them at my beck and call.  They'll be calling ME wondering why I haven't said anything in a few weeks.  But I'll have them get in touch with my PR person.  Cuz I'd have to fit them in between the signings and the movie discussions and well, actual writing.


Meantime, I'm getting further along with my memoirs of being unemployed.  However, I'm not a big memoir fan, so I guess I better bone up on it.

They say never write something you'd never read.  Or that you've never read.  The format may or may not be the memoir genre, it just feels like me rambling.  But it seems to make sense, and it is relevant to my experience.  So I'll just keep at it until I grow tired of it.

Meantime, I'm also outlining the next book in The Timepiece Chronicles, just to keep hope alive.  I'm using the outline technique that I stole from J.K. Rowling and outlined here.  I gotta tell ya, that woman must write SMALL.  I don't know how she fits it all in such tiny boxes.

But that's really the point isn't it?  If you can't sum up a chapter plot point in a few words, you probably need to rethink it and narrow it down some.

Well, anyway, back to work.  Be well, my friends!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Some sound advice from my man Chuck.

Ok, I'm probably not close enough to call him "my main man", which also sounds a little moronic, but I did write to him about agent expectations.  After all, the man wrote the book on agents...ok, the man wrote the Guide to Literary Agents...so he should know right?

Chuck's a great guy, and I'm gonna plug his blog again here, just cause he responded to me.

Anyway, he said that I shouldn't worry about it.  His book, "How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack: Defend Yourself When the Lawn Warriors Strike (And They Will)", was just published.  It looks hysterical and I can't wait to read it.

But the revisions from his agents took EIGHT MONTHS to get back to him.  Wow.  Now granted, Chuck's probably repped by some high-profile, ICM or Agent-to-the-stars kinda company, and his agent was probably busy typing notes on Dean Koontz's latest manuscript, but still...EIGHT MONTHS?!?

Well, Chuck did acknowledge that he probably should've been a little more pressing around month three or four.  Eight months seems too long.

So my next question to him is:  what about communication?  Is it too much to ask that the agent just acknowledge your existence?  A simple five word email:  I'll get back to you.  Something!

So we'll see what he says next.  Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Ok, it's been 4 weeks since I heard from Caitlin that she'd get back to me in a week with the revisions.  Wrote her last week - still no response.  Not even a recognition that I exist.  No reply.  Is she ok?  Is she hurt?

Or am I just low man on the totem pole and she's focusing her attention elsewhere?

I actually hope it's latter, cuz I don't want anything bad to happen to her.

But man, it's been a long time...

While we wait, here's some info for you guys courtesy of the man, Chuck Sambuchino over at Guide to Literary Agents...

"New agent seeking writers! Denise Little of The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency "

Best of luck!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Man, this is tiring...

I've forgotten how exhausting this work thing is.  Weeks blow by like the cow in Twister, and by the time I get home at 6:30-7ish I'm ready for some food, some drink and BED.  How the heck am I supposed to write like this?

Full-time writers may have forgotten, but this kinda life ain't easy.  It's literally like having two jobs, and depending on what your day job is, it can leave you very little in the can to do your writing.

We all know the key is goals - ya know, write the same amount every day or spend the same amount of time writing, etc. etc.  But here's something I heard that I never really realized.  It takes about 4 weeks for a "habit" to officially burn itself into your brain by re-routing neurons and making it a part of your life.  So while the number of words or the time may seem important, they're not in the beginning.  The important thing is to (excuse me, Nike), just do it.  Every day.  No weekends off.  Same time, same thing, every day.

The second key is the time - start small.  One hundred words, maybe.  Gradually build up to your goal over those four weeks.  Don't rush into it because if you fall short you'll skip the next day and then BOOM the whole thing's done.

I'm trying it with exercise as well.  1 minute a day.  Just 1 minute.  Then after two weeks I'll double it.  But it's gotta be at the same time or a part of the same routine like brushing my teeth or showering.

So I'll let ya know how it turns out.  Meanwhile, if you're like me and coming home exhausted to the point of exhaustion, don't fret.  We'll grind this out together and keep each other company throughout.

Oh, and STILL NO WORD FROM CAITLIN!  I'm beginning to get worried.  Has my agent suddenly gone psycho through the streets of Manhattan?  Is she locking up some huge-mega-deal that she doesn't want to divulge to me until it's near final?  Or has she gotten totally sick of my project and just figured "ta heck with him".

Inquiring minds wanna know...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Time to get Re-started

Well, it's been about a month, so I guess I better get crackin' on book 2.  I've started a few other projects in the meantime, but this is the one that's got a good foothold, so I gotta get serious about it.

Still no word from Caitlin...hope she's doing ok.  It's maddening to wait, as you can imagine.  Trust me, once you land an agent, the work is far from over.

So I have to figure out what Book 2 is going to be all about, and I'm going to shamelessly steal an idea (at work we call it a 'best practice') from someone who knows a thing or two about writing very popular books:  J.K. Rowling.  You might've heard of her.

Anyway, her chapter notes and outline are available out on the internet, and I think she's got a pretty good thing going here.  Take a look.

Notice the detail she goes into - this isn't someone outlining a book just so they have everything in order and can get published and make millions.  This is someone who is LIVING in another world!  If J.R.R. Tolkien didn't do the same thing I'd be shocked.  You have to when you're writing fantasy.  You've created an entire universe where everything down to the month of the year in the book has to be known. One slip, as Pink Floyd sang, and down the hole we fall.

But I think it's true for any book.  By the time your readers are totally into what you're writing, if one character behaves out of sort, or if one little thing is introduced that they've never heard of before, they'll know it, and cry foul.  And conversely, anything you've taken the time to point out better be of significance, because otherwise they'll be asking "What about the dagger on the mantle back in chapter 1?"

Readers will be as absorbed in your world as you are.  And they will subsequently know it as well as you do.  Meaning, if you get lost, they'll get lost.  And then they'll just pack up and leave your world behind.

So.  I'm off to outline book 2.  As soon as I get it completed I'll post it here so you can see the progress of a series book.  Til then, happy writing!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sex in Young Adult Books

Mary Kole, agent extraordinaire and brilliant bloggist, wrote a great post about sex in YA that I won't try to duplicate or top, but I will provide my own two cents.  See, this, being my blog, allows me to do that.  Check out her post about whether it's good or bad or what (and I agree with 100% of what she says).

Now consider this:  why are we, as a society, so up in arms about it?  Why does it get our panties in a twist?   Or was that too sexual a reference?

I know some of you out there are from overseas, so feel free to chime in and entertain us with your perspective from across the big lake.

My perspective?  America, being still an infant in the grand scheme of things, is desperately trying to avoid growing up.

Our society is no different than the growth of a human being - primarily because we ARE human beings.  But consider - Europe has been around as a progressive culture for centuries.  They've gone through their witch trials and Spanish Inquisitions and all that rubbish a long, long time ago.  Britain banned and abhorred slavery when we were still trying to get out from under their skirt.  We just gave African Americans equal rights FIFTY YEARS AGO.  Think about that.  Sixty years ago African Americans couldn't even ride the same bus as whites in some states.

We tend to think in terms of days and weeks now, because the velocity of progress is so fast.  We get a new iPod every three months, and the technology outpaces our own ability to effectively use it that half the things we know aren't even being put to good use.

But, in the essence of global progression and evolution, our past one hundred years has been a blink.  Now maybe the rate of progress will accelerate as compared to our brethren across the sea, but it will still take a long, long time before we can come close to replicating their level of social justice and secularism. Boobs on TV?  In America?  HELL NO!

So, what does all this have to do with sex in YA?  How does this affect your career as a writer of good soft porn?  Well, it's like Mary Kole said in her blog.  You have to be true to yourself and to the characters.

Sure sex for sex sake can be over the top, but then again so can stomping feet or say "like" every other word.  Anything in excess without purpose is annoying.  But sex when it fits the situation and the story? Gotta have it.  Otherwise the alternative will feel forced like you're trying to avoid the elephant in the room.

Teenagers have sex.  Not mine, thank God.  But others.  Teenagers drink.  Not mine either.  I'm kinda batting 1.000 here.  But my character who lives in a broken home?  Or who has an alcoholic for a father?  Yeah, they will.

And that's because in reality it really happens.

SO - if you plan on writing and you have some scenes where sex is to be mentioned, and you really feel it's necessary, go for it.  But remember the infantile country we live in:  people will hate you.  You'll get hate mail from evangelicals who think you're trying to corrupt the minds of our country's youth.  They'll all but try to burn you at the stake.

But don't let them stop you.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Bad Guy Within

We all know that the villain of the story meets up with the hero of the story in the epic showdown in the last act of a good book, right?  The gunfight at the OK Corral.  The big stand off.  Good versus Evil, that kind of thing.

But what if the bad guy IS the good guy?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A Catcher In The Rye.  Moby Dick.  These are novels where the hero and the bad guy are actually one and the same.  Dr. Jekyll is easy.  A Catcher in the Rye, I believe, has Holden Caufield against the world, sure, but really it's against his perception of the world.  It's him against his own negativity.  And Captain Ahab is driven by his own past to try and slay a monster that, although it seems to be the villain, really is nothing more than a whale wanting to live its life on its own.

So how does this conflict get resolved in a way that is engaging and exciting?

SPOILER ALERT!  (Ok, if you REALLY don't know how these books end, then shame on you!)

Usually, the way to end the internal struggle is through an external force killing the hero and the villain.  In Moby Dick, some may argue that Ismael is the hero, and there's a good argument for that.  But the question I would pose back is "how does Ismael really change in the novel?"  But that's another discussion.  So for the sake of argument, let's say Ahab is the hero and his inner drive is the villain.  The fight, the last bout with the whale, is really, I think, a metaphor for his fight against himself.  And when he sticks the one harpoon into the whale, the rope gets tied around him and pulls him underwater, where he drowns.

In Catcher in the Rye, it's the Carousel that Holden's sister rides on that allows him (I think) to win the fight of his internal negativity.

In Jekyll and Hyde, the hero kills himself.

In all cases, the hero and the villain can no longer exist in the same body.  One of them has to go, and sometimes the bad guys takes the good guy with him.  It's a center piece of tragedy:  the inner conflict of the hero.  In fact, if you're writing a tragedy, I'd argue that to make the hero face an EXTERNAL hero and have them kill each other makes the audience feel cheated.  ONE of them is supposed to survive!

So if you're writing about a hero and the story centers around his own internal "bad guy", be prepared for the big showdown to result in something tragic, like the death of both.  But regardless of the outcome, make sure the internal struggle is there all along, that the reader senses it, and that it's no different than any other hero on his/her journey being blocked by an antagonist.  That's what makes reading fun...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tweeting as an Author

Check it out!  Over there  ----->>  NO!  THERE!  No.  Sheesh.  Ok, nevermind.  It's down to the right.

I'm all a-twitter!  I'm a twitterer.  Or a twit.

You pick.

Don't twitter yet?!?  What kind of AUTHOR ARE YOU!?

Got news for ya, it ain't that big a deal...yet.  BUT, when you're hugely famous and movies are being made from your books and you're relaxing by the side of your pool with a Mohito perched on your nicely tanned, flat stomach, you're gonna need SOMETHING to do, right?

Besides, all those fans of yours will want to know all about you - what you love to wear, how you like your Mohito (I hope I'm spelling that right, I'm not much of a drinker), and where you're going...right?


Ok, maybe if you're HUGELY popular, like Brad Pitt or something, will people sign in to see what your doing right now.

Most people, however, I believe are using Twitter for inspiration.  For thoughts that they can use.  Things that help them see you as a real person, because that helps them realize that real people can make it.

Tweeting is not like blogging.  It's a way to quickly reach out to people, but what you reach out to them with depends on the audience.  If your followers (boy, doesn't THAT sound messianic) are all family members, they may wanna know where you and what's happening with the kids.

But if they're fans of your work, they'll want to know about the process - are you writing, if so, what, what is inspiring you right now, and should they give it all up to hawk Slurpees at the nearest 7-11.

Don't be arrogant.  Don't presume they care about your fifth car.  And don't think of yourself as the center of THEIR universe.  They're following you for other reasons, and will drop you if you don't seem to care.

Tweeting is a great marketing tool, but it can be a very transparent marketing tool.  Too much of "MY NEW BOOK IS STILL IN BOOKSTORES EVERYBODY" will get very old.  So keep it fresh, keep it honest, and keep it focused on helping others, not yourself.

We don't really need to know how gorgeous you look in that new Porsche...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How Much Blood?

Well, c'mon, it is the month for Halloween after all!

So if you're writing horror stories, how much detail should you go into?  When is too much gore a bad thing?  Well, I'll give you my humble opinion, do with it what you will...

I was a big fan of Dean Koontz for a while, a long time ago.  Then I read one of his books, I can't even remember the name of it, and I almost got sick by page 10.  There was a scene in an abandoned Tunnel of Love (if this sounds familiar to anyone let me know), and it was so graphic and gory that I couldn't finish it.

To me, the best effective scare in any genre or medium, is one where the IMAGINATION of the reader is where the horror lies.

In movies, for example, Alfred Hitchcock never once shows the knife going into Janet Leigh.  Not once.

In Stephen King's IT, easily one of the scariest books I've ever read, the details of the first victim's death includes very little detail.  He uses other senses to let your imagination piece together what happened, and how horrible it is.

"...and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more."

"The left side of George's slicker was now bright red.  Blood flowed into the stormdrain from the tattered hole where the left arm had been.  A knob of bone, horribly bright, peeked through the torn cloth."

Simple.  Just descriptive enough to let you know what was going on, but not gushing with blood, guts or dismemberment.  In fact, the focus of that entire scene isn't the horror of a young boy dying, it's the horror of the THING that's killing him:  it's in a FRIGGING SEWER!


So I say minimize the descriptive details of the gore.  We don't need a lesson in how a bleeding artery sprays blood over the face of the victim while the rubbery intestines seep out of the cut spreading across the abdomen.  That's a little gross.

You could say that the hero felt his world going black and a horrible burning as his body ripped open.  The rest you just leave up to the reader.

In my opinion...

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Scary Bad Guy

Jason.  Freddie.  Randal Flagg.  Dracula.  The monsters that haunt our dreams.  What makes a horror bad guy different than a regular bad guy?  I mean, both should get in the way of the hero and his journey, right?

Yes, but there's a subtle difference.

In a regular story, the bad guy, or antagonist, may be a somewhat sympathetic character.  Even if he's human, you can understand perhaps why he is the way he is.  By making the bad guy more real, he becomes more three-dimensional, and thus a more realistic bad-guy.  It makes the conflict more interesting, because you're rooting for the good guy, but the bad guy has so much going on that you're actually interested in him too.

In horror, the bad guy is usually more one dimensional.  They don't give a shit about anything.  They're "monsters", devoid of any feelings or backstory or empathetic experiences.  They want to kill, maim, rule the world, whatever.  And that doesn't make them any less interesting, because in the horror genre, we don't want to feel anything but revulsion for the bad guy.  Hannibal Lecter is a perfect example.  He just doesn't care that eating people is bad.  He doesn't care who thinks he's a monster.  He just kills, and kills well.  We spend the whole novel hoping like hell that the hero doesn't have to get too close to him.

Horror monsters are humans, diseases, beasts, aliens, anything that destroys without abandon.  Fiction bad guys shouldn't be that one-sided, because then the conflict becomes less interesting.  That's why I struggle to think of Frankenstein as a real "horror" novel, because yes the monster kills, but who would blame him?  I mean, if you were dead and then suddenly alive with some whacked out brain, that would make anyone cranky.  So it's more just an interesting study in the pros/cons of dead tissue reanimation.

But Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King's IT?  That dude's bad.  He just doesn't care who he kills.

For more on the subject, check out Kidlit.com - great summary of the role of an antagonist in fiction.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

It's OCTOBER?!? That's some scary *@!%.

When the hell did this happen?  I was sunning myself by the pool the other day, I swear!

Ok, so in honor of October, I thought I'd kick it off with a bit of writing horror.  Now, I've written several horror stories in a collection called "The Firelight Tales", but they haven't seen the light of day yet.  And I've already talked about what scares you, so I'll go off on a couple of specifics here over the next few weeks.

Today we're talking location, location, location as a means of scaring the crap out of someone.

Most good horror stories start out big, but end up small.  You see this a lot in movies, where the actual setting of the story starts out in a town, a house, a city, etc.  There's safety in large spaces.

But when the shit hits the fan?  Somehow, the hero always seems to be locked in somewhere.  The location shrinks.

Not literally, of course.  I mean, if every horror film ended in a box or a closet it'd get really boring.  But relative to the hero's journey, the final showdown typically takes place in a smaller location than where they started.

Why, you ask?  Easy.  Because there's nowhere to run to, baby.  Nowhere to hide.  Trapped.  In a city the options for hiding and avoiding the bad guy are endless.  In a building, less so.  On a floor, even less.  On a floor with no working elevators, in the dark and the bad guy has night vision goggles on?

You're screwed.

Some examples I can think of:  Stephen King's The Stand.  Starts out all over the United States.  But what good is that?  The boogey man can't possible hit everyone everywhere (ok, well Randall Flagg was pretty bad-ass).  So King moves them to TWO locations:  Vegas and Boulder.

Same thing with IT by Stephen King.  Starts out in a big town, great, lovely.  Ends up in the tight quarters of the underbelly of town, down in the sewers.  Dark, dank, and confined.

So if you want to ratchet up the stakes and scare the hero to death (hopefully not literally), squeeze them out.  Put them in progressively tighter locations.  Take away their options.  THEN see what the hell they can do about it!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

This is gonna be tough...

Wow - so new job, new responsibilities, getting home at 6:30ish.  This is gonna be tough balancing that plus the need to write.  I'm trying to set aside some time after the kids go to bed, but at that point I'm pretty bushed too.  But I can't let it stop me.

Gonna write some more "The Strength to Stand Up"

But enough about me.  More on the conference.

Some pearls of wisdom from Lindsay Barrett George Barrett, again very relevant no matter what you're writing, and some things I'd never really thought of:

A book is more than it seems, and a good writer has Honesty, Emotional Connection and Depth to anything they write.  Honesty in terms of the subject matter - it has to mean something to you.  Even if it's just something you're really interested in.  I couldn't write about a Victorian Romance because quite honestly that bores me to tears.  But others can, and do it well.

Emotional Connection - the characters have to have something in common with the writer.  You have to have an emotional connection to your hero AND your villain in order to keep that level of honesty.  Do that, and your readers will feel that emotional connection.  Jeff is basically me at age 11.   Except a little smarter.  Professor Ferguson, the bad guy, is the smarmy know-it-all that I used to hate growing up.  Still do, as a matter of fact.

And depth?  Well, it can't just be a story about x meets y and lives happily ever after.  If you write a cardboard cut-out of a novel, where you're writing to make money, it'll come off as stale as it sounds.  If you are writing for a purpose, a theme, a message you want to get out, it'll have more undertones that readers will pick up on.  That's also what will make it stand out.  My book's not just about time travel, it's about learning the lesson that you can't change the past and have anything good change in the present.  That everything's connected, and things happen for a reason.  Don't regret what's happened.  That's a very important lesson for kids, but also an important lesson that I learned myself.

So keep those three elements in mind while you're writing.  Am I being honest?  Do I care about the hero?  Is there more here than just the action and words?  If so, you're on the right track.

More later on character changes.  Another great insight from Ms. George!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Publishing Truth

Got word from Caitlin - she's halfway through the manuscript and it's looking very clean.  She hopes to have the annotated manuscript back to me next week, which means ONE MORE ROUND OF CHANGES!  Ugh.  I thought for sure I'd have this ready to go out to editors, but hey, if Caitlin wants to be  a perfectionist on this, I'm not gonna complain!  As a wise man once said, "GIT 'ER DONE!"

Ok, a semi-wise man.

Anyway, back to the SCBWI conference.  The first speaker, as I mentioned, was Lindsey Barrett George.  She did a great demo of how the publishing process works, more so from a picture book perspective, but it was still pretty applicable.

I won't go into details, but one thing did strike me as an eye-opener.  Now this site is OPTIMISM ABOUNDS, so take this as a nice problem to have, not something to dissuade you:

There ain't a lot of money to be made in just writing a book.

SHOCKER!  I know, I know, I should've put SPOILER ALERT at the top.  Seriously, though, you probably already knew that, right?  I mean, nobody really writes to become rich and famous anymore because so few people actually DO become rich and famous.  Oh sure, you have the Stephanie Meyers story, or the J.K. Rowlings of the world, but for the two of them there are hundreds of thousands of authors who've written really good books that are available at your local bookstore.

$.25 for every book sold - that's what you're getting...maybe...if you're published.  So if you were a blockbuster and sold a million copies, you'd be getting $250k.  Not bad, but not something to sustain you the rest of your life.

Why am I berating this point?  Because writing isn't about the dollars.  Even if you luck out and get a ton of cash, the story is the real thing.  It's the only thing.  If it makes it into a movie or is just a small seller, you've done something that very few people can ever say they've done:  you cemented your legacy in history.  Your book will always be available in the Library of Congress.  One hundred years from now, your future generations can still read your words.  Your story will continue to be told.

That's pretty cool.  So if you get the "harsh reality" talk about publishing and how little it pays, remember:  we're talking about something much more valuable than money.  We're talking immortality - for both you AND your characters.

...but if you want to dream about millions, go for it!

...I know I will!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Update from the Eastern PA SCWBI Conference!

Great time had at the SCBWI conference on Saturday!  And a big hello to my friends from that conference who've hopefully joined us here.  Lots to cover, so I'm going to split it up this week to give you an overview of what I've learned.

First of all, for those who may not know, SCBWI stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and it's a GREAT organization to belong to if you're into writing for kids - YA, Middle Grade, or picture book.  Twice a year the Eastern PA chapter has a get together with editors, agents and authors presenting to the group.  Once a year the entire Eastern region gets together in New York or something.

This fall's event took place at a Country Club that could've easily been a stand-in for Bushwood in the movie Caddyshack.  I wanted to jump into the pool but was afraid I'd find a floating Baby Ruth bar.  However, the list of presenters was impressive, and they all did a great job with their content:

First up was Lindsay Barrett George, an author/illustrator who was written and illustrated several picture books (her realism and attention to detail were stunning) talked about the publishing business

Then a trio of authors, Jeannine Norris, Nan Marino, and Jennifer R. Hubbard, spoke about first time out writers in YA, Middle Grade and Picture Book genres

Wendy Mass followed them with a great overview of her history, including an option on her book Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (she's my new hero.  She's written over 10 middle grade books and had one made into a movie!  She's also incredibly nice and down to earth.  Very approachable.)

Then Harold Underdown gave a great talk about the present state of publishing.  Harold is a children's book editor and maintains one of the most comprehensive children's book publishing sites on the web (I've added it to the side bar).  Check it out if you're in this genre!

And finally, Erica Rand Silverman, a beautiful agent with the prestigious Sterling Lord agency, gave tips and answered questions on getting an agent.

So there was a lot to do there, and I had a great time meeting fellow authors and also volunteering for a demonstration of the travails of writing (a check for $1.95 as an advance!  Ok, it was a pretend check for $5000, but I had some fun with it!)  Can't wait for the spring get together!

More this week about the details.

One final note:  I've GOTTEN A JOB!  YEAH!

C'mon!  Say it with me!  OH YEAH!  OH YEAH!  DO THE DANCE!  DO THE DANCE!

Ok, if you could see me now I'd be frightfully embarrassed.  Anyway, this will affect my blogging time somewhat, so I may have to hit it up later in the evening when I set aside my writing hour.  More on that to come.

Have a great day!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Strength to Stand Up

I'm starting a new book today with that as the title.  "The Strength To Stand Up.  Memoirs of an Unemployed Man."  People have been hounding me to put my ordeal into words, so I'm going to, with the specific bent on being the ANTI-"Secret" book.

In case you're not familiar with it - "The Secret" is a book that started a big craze centered around getting what you want.  Some of it made sense to me, some of it seemed like snake-oil salesmanship.  "You can have anything you want if you just buy my book so I can have anything I want!"

It centers around the concept of quantum physics, which basically says we're all made up of the same matter and therefore all connected and therefore manipulated by primal forces.  Once we learn to be positive, think positive, etc., we draw those forces towards us and BOOM, instant happiness.

Except it doesn't always happen.  Which leads the reader to think "What the heck am I doing wrong?  I must not be thinking positively enough!"

I'm bringing this up now because there's nothing more disheartening than rejection letters, whether they're form letters, a nice personalized note, or no response at all.  It leaves us thinking that there's something WRONG with us or our query letter.  While the latter may need revisions (see my side bar over there), there's nothing that we're doing WRONG or anything WRONG with us for being rejected.

What we need is not to be found in a book, or a blog, or some "secret".  It's internal to each and every one of us, and it's different for each of us.  It's the drive and the strength to STAND BACK UP.  I've learned the hard way over the past nine months that life will knock you on your keister without a moment's notice at any time.  Things you hadn't thought about for years may suddenly go wrong.  And that's just the way life is.  We don't know why it happened, there's nothing you can do to avoid the next big thing.  All you can do is recognize your own strength.

So when you get that rejection letter from someone you thought for SURE was going to be your agent, or you've followed the Secret and STILL don't have representation, just remember your own strength.  You can stand up again.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Summing it all up

You're at a writer's conference, and as you take the elevator to the twelfth floor for your afternoon nap, you find yourself standing next to the editor that just got through talking about how desperate his company is looking for THE EXACT BOOK YOU JUST WROTE!

You strike up a conversation about how you loved his talk, and how he described your book perfectly.  "Oh, really?"  He says.  "What's it about?"

You go into your prepared elevator speech, get to the main conflict of the story when "DING", the door opens and the editor shakes your hand, thanks you, and offers to have someone's admin read your query letter.

Did you sum it up or go into the character development of the main character and why the conflict she faces is so true to life?

A couple of days ago I talked about creating a sense of urgency.  That conflict is the heart of your hook - that which is going to make the editor's ears perk up and say "hey, that's kinda cool."  It's easier than you think, as long as you don't over-think it.

Now granted, there are hundreds of pages of advice on writing a hook or summing up a book (in screenplay terms it's called a LOGLINE).  And each of them may be slightly different, so here's my take on it for free.

1)  The character(s) must do x before y creates z.  That's the basic algebraic formula.  Now you can fluff it up with descriptions and so on, but that's basically what the listener wants to know:  who's in trouble and what's at stake?   For example:  "Two eleven year-old boys must use a time travel pocket watch to stop an evil Professor from changing the past before he destroys their future."

2)  Keep an eye out for the following, they may indicate you going off in an unnecessary direction:  "Only to find" or "BUT".  For example, "Two eleven year-old boys must use a time travel pocket watch but are trapped in an altered present because their arch-nemesis has changed the past and now they must find him and stop him before the new present becomes a permanent reality."  That was an earlier version.  Too long.  Why?  Because I threw in an OBSTACLE.  Editors and Agents will assume there are obstacles, otherwise there'd be no story.  "Only to find" or "But" tend to lead to an obstacle, and that will bloat your summary.  I say, leave out the obstacles.  That's for a detailed synopsis or for when the editors read the actual manuscript.

3)  Keep it focused on the protagonist and antagonist.  In my example above, I probably could've gotten away with just saying "An eleven year-old..." but since the book is written in dual first-person, there's really two protagonists.  But notice I didn't mention their sister, father, or the mentor character at all.  Superfluous.  There's no time.  The two characters you describe are also probably the two characters that face off in the final act.  Harry Potter and Voldemort.  Percy and Hades.  That kinda thing.

Now, one final note:  this applies to commercial fiction only.  I haven't studied literary fiction, where the conflicts or urgency may be more internal and may be a harder log line to write.  If you're interested, I'll take a look and see how you could sum up "The Great Gatsby" or "Catcher in the Rye".  Those senses of urgency aren't as obvious and may make the logline different.  Till then, if anyone would like me to read a summary or two, feel free to pass 'em along...

Hope this helps!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What's the Rush? Creating a Sense of Urgency

I'm reading a book now (I won't mention the title out of respect for the author), that keeps me asking one question:


Needless to say, it's not an easy read.

See, I'm on Chapter 17 and I'm still struggling with what the sense of urgency is.  If the hero fails in doing whatever they're supposed to do (and I'm still not sure - the hero's mentor is really the hero so far), what's the big deal?

Will the world end?  Will people and characters I care about die?  I dunno.

Any good book, as I mentioned before, will have a sense of urgency as it relates to either the reader or the hero or some other characters.  They absolutely HAVE to get something done or their life will be for naught.  In some instances that urgency is around an accomplishment.  In others, it's danger - depends on your genre.  In my book, the United States stands to be completely altered by a change in history.  If the hero's don't correct that change, everything they know about 2009 will be different.  And not just different, but horrible - nuclear wars, poverty, and so on.

Again, some stories are based on a character accomplishment - and the driving need to achieve it or else the main character's life is pointless.  Moby Dick finding the whale at all costs.  Ordinary People by Judith Guest is about a hero trying to reconcile with his family before he completely loses his mind.

But all good stories have a "pace" to them that is based on a sense of urgency.

And by the way - this urgency, this singular drive of the hero, if you can identify that and it's strong enough, you can summarize your book in one line.  More on that tomorrow!


If there's no point to the story, there's no point in reading it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fun Books for Inspiration

Not like spiritual inspiration, but cool books to get your mind going if you need a new story.  The first, most obvious, is The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood.  In it are some great quotes, teasers, thought-provokers, and pictures that are sure to get the creative juices flowing.  For example, one page has "Imagine a coat.  Imagine the pocket of the coat. Imagine what's in the pocket."  And it's not just for starting a story - if your story needs a kick start, they have other suggestions there too.  Like one page just says "Your character is being followed."  That got me thinking about ratcheting up the tension in one scene.  I actually have to put it away after I get something because if I scan through it, I'll have a hundred novels running through my head.

Another fun book to get you thinking, especially if you're trying to write a comedy or need some really whacked out characters, is The Dumbest Crook Book by Leland Gregory, or something like it.  These types of books are just filled with characters who do stupid stuff, and while you can't use their actual names, you can start to think about them as people.  Why would they do stuff like that?  What was their upbringing?  What would drive them to take such a chance?  Here's an example:

"Robert Palmer was arrested and charged with burglary in Savannah, Georgia after removing a windowpane and entering the residence of Joseph Palmer.  When the police detained him, he claimed he hadn't planned to rob the place; he was only curious as to whether he and Joseph Palmer were related.  They're not."

A great example of a character so driven for family he'd do something like that.  There's DEFINITELY a story in there.

So go check 'em out.  They're a lot of fun if you're between books, or wanting to do something completely different.  I'll have some other book reviews for ya soon.  Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Optimism Continues!

Welp, had a great interview yesterday and another interested party today, so it seems this struggling writer might not be struggling much longer.  It's been a long road, but I sure hope it ends soon!

Nothing new to report on the book side, though.  I've sent the last revision to my agent, but haven't heard back from her yet.  As soon as that process starts again I'll be sure to let you know.  Hopefully the revisions are good enough to send it out to the publishers for their review.  I'm OPTIMISTIC!  (catch the key phrase there?)

Anyway, off to write some more.  Gotta think about the next book in the series...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An Author's Dream Come True

Hope everyone had a great Labor Day.  I know I did - went to a fantastic Renaissance Faire in Southeast PA (yes, I am a geek that way), and did a lot of labor around the house.

I thought I'd share this link with you to get you all riled up about the possibilities of your work.  Now, I know that you may or may not have an agent, and that you may or may not be published, and perhaps those things are your next steps.  Getting your book out as a movie probably isn't even a glint in your eye right now.

Perhaps that's ok, but when I dream, I like to dream big.  Now I may have mentioned one of my favorite novels, The Pillars of the Earth, here before, and I was ecstatic when I heard it was coming to TV.  Then I looked at this site with the eyes of an author.

What a dream.  Imagine your book being made into a film - the characters that existed in your head for so long suddenly coming to life.  The location, the words, YOUR words, being spoken and visible for all to see.  What a thrill that must be.

That's my goal.  No, I'm not writing for the big screen, I'm writing a novel.  But for me, a history buff, technology in film has made our history much more accessible than its ever been.  I've seen the Titanic sink, William Wallace fight, and a medieval cathedral built.  Now I want to see Jeff and Ben, the heroes of my book, actually fight in the Revolutionary War.  If it ever comes to that, I'll be a complete mush-head, I know it.

So dream big.  Don't be afraid to go for whatever brass ring you've got in front of you.  Some may be happy with a small advance check, some for a Newberry Prize, some with just the words of an agent that say "they want to buy your book".  Whatever it is, keep that end in mind.  As a great man once said, "If you can dream it, you can do it."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Passive Reading

Welp, the manuscript is away, and back in Caitlin's hands for review.  With any luck, she'll begin shopping it around over the next month and a half.  According to her, the back-to-school time is a great time to get publisher's interested as they update their catalogues for next summer reading.  So here's to an OPTIMISTIC turn around time and good results!

On to other things - saw a great blog blurb about good writing being invisible - meaning the best writing is when the reader doesn't recognize it as great writing.  The chapters flow from one to another, the scenes are seamless, and there isn't a lot of looking up words or floating backwards to try and remember what the heck happened.

Dan Brown's books are like this - that's why they sell so great.  But it's a very difficult state to achieve, needless to say.

For one thing, everyone's tastes are different, so what's really easy to read for one person may be impossible for the next.  Ken Follet's "Pillars of the Earth" is a great example of good storytelling, but I get thrown out of the story every time he goes into details regarding the cathedral.  Moby Dick, the same way - how much do I really need to know about whaling to get to the story?   Even my own book, The Timepiece Chronicles had to be parred down because I had way to much info about the Revolutionary War to keep kids interested.

The challenge is this:  when we write, we know the story and can see it clearly in our head.  And its usually about a subject we've researched, fallen in love with, and want to share with the world.  This leads to one of two things that can throw the reader out of the story:  1) a lack of detail and a lot of unintended assumptions that the reader knows what we're talking about, or 2) TOO much detail trying to get across absolutely everything.  In either case, the reader stumbles upon something that throws them out of the story, and rather than being an observer to a great adventure they're now an interpreter.  That makes it too much work to read.

Check out KIDLIT.com (the link's to the right) to see more.  It's interesting stuff.  And keep in mind when you're writing that I haven't the foggiest idea what's in your head, so you better tell me.  Just not too much.  ;0)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Partial Book Review - A Confederacy of Dunces

Ok, I may get slammed here, but I'm gonna throw my two cents around on this book even though I haven't completely finished it.  I'm actually having trouble finishing it.

I picked it up based on the recommendation of family and friends.  They thought it was one of the funniest books they've ever read.  Now, I'd like to think (to quote Bruno Kirby in Good Morning Vietnam), "I know funny".  I love a good comedic read and thought Douglas Adams was probably the best at it that I've ever come across.

I don't get this book.

The main anti-hero protagonist is a jerk.  Ok, I can understand that, but he's not (to me), a funny jerk.  He's educated, arrogant, but acts incredibly childish, and the humor just doesn't play with me.  He sounds annoying.

More importantly, however, is the complete lack of any story.  So far (and I'm really not that far), he's been accosted by the New Orleans police, and then sent on his way.  Then his mother and he hang out in a bar.  And talk.

Where's the story?  What's he trying to achieve?  What journey is he about to go on that I want to follow him on?

The reason I'm having a tough time reading it, staying with it, is because I'm not INVESTED in it.  I don't really care what happens.  That can be a killer for any book, and it's one reason why boys don't read YA books and why classics don't fly with teenagers.  They just DON'T CARE.  How do you make them care?  I think you hook 'em with a character they can relate to.  Someone they'd want to be friends with, they care about, they think is pretty cool, or is just like them.  Once you've got that, then you throw that character into a world of hurt trying to do something, and now you've got the reader hooked.  Now they want to see if their friend is gonna make it out...

Otherwise, they'll drop the book like I dropped "A Confederacy of Dunces".  I just don't care what happens to this guy.

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